Purdue football: Report card after Boilermakers score another road upset
Early in the 4th quarter on Saturday, Purdue took control vs. Nebraska, scoring its 2nd touchdown after halftime.
Meanwhile, the defense was pitching a 2nd-half shutout. Though the Cornhuskers managed a late score, the Boilermakers hung for their second road victory in a row in the Big Ten.
Let’s grade the Boilermakers after their 28-23 win in Lincoln:
Aidan O’Connell was efficient, taking what was available to him without forcing the ball into dangerous situations.
As a result, he had a very solid day, throwing for 233 yards on 34-of-45 passing with 2 touchdowns and — most importantly — no turnovers. It helped that others stepped up to take some of the pressure off him and wide receiver David Bell.
Milton Wright had 7 catches for 40 yards and 1 touchdown, while Jackson Anthrop, whom Purdue used as a utility man, caught probably the most critical pass, a reception out of the backfield for a 4th-quarter score that proved the game-winner. Anthrop, who played running back and slot receiver primarily, had 6 catches.
And the offensive line, despite giving up a couple of sacks, was fairly consistent in giving O’Connell time to operate, and it did so without starting left tackle Greg Long.
Bell still led the receiving corps with 9 receptions for 74 yards. The Boilermakers were successful in moving him around, even lining him up in the slot at times, in an effort to prevent the Cornhuskers from bottling him up, as Wisconsin had done a week ago.
However, Purdue couldn’t connect deep — its long pass was only 21 yards — and O’Connell’s yards-per-attempt of 5.2 was lower than desired. But overall, the QB made plays when needed and kept the ball in Purdue’s possession.
The running game received a couple of boosts: First, Zander Horvath returned to play for the first time since early in Purdue’s Week 2 win at UConn. And second, the Boilermakers shifted Anthrop more frequently into the backfield, giving them a shiftier, more elusive running back option.
Both helped significantly.
With King Doerue, who had been the only scholarship running back on the roster the last several weeks, gaining 74 yards on 17 carries (a 4.4-yard average), Horvath and Anthrop supplemented the ground game. Horvath, a big, fierce, physical between-the-tackles runner, had been missed; he totaled 24 yards and was able to pound in a 1-yard touchdown run.
The Boilermakers converted 1 of their 2 4th-down rushing attempts. The first one succeeded when Doerue picked up 1 yard, and the second failed when Horvath could not.
But overall, Purdue did what it needed to keep relative balance on its offense, rushing for 116 yards — it was only the 2nd time this season (UConn) that the Boilermakers had gone for more than 100 — on 41 carries.
The Boilermakers went on the road in a hostile environment and operated without many flaws, picking up 349 yards and scoring 21 points.
Jeff Brohm was creative in his scheme, like shifting Bell around and utilizing Anthrop more frequently, and play-calling without turning to ridiculous gadgetry.
Purdue could have made things easier late in the game, when it was trying to nurse its 2-possession lead, by operating better in the 4-minute offense. Rather than chew up clock late in the 4th quarter, the Boilermakers had back-to-back 3-and-outs, the second resulting in a missed field goal, allowing Nebraska to make a run at a late comeback.
For the second consecutive road game, the defense intercepted the opposing quarterback 4 times. And against Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez, it turned 1 of those picks into a touchdown, when Jalen Graham, who had a monster game, jumped in front of a quick out, caught the ball and raced 45 yards for the score.
It came at a critical time for the Boilermakers, whose offense was moving the ball early in the game but hadn’t scored; Graham’s points put Purdue on the board early in the 2nd quarter. The junior linebacker picked off another pass later, when he dived to grab an ill-advised, pressure-induced Martinez backhand.
Once Purdue took control in the 2nd half, it forced the game into Martinez’s arm, which was its goal from the outset. And Martinez struggled to move the ball, first being intercepted by safety Cam Allen, then being picked on the next possession by nickel back Christopher Jefferson.
Purdue sacked Martinez only once, but it was a big one, as Kydran Jenkins brought down Martinez on the opening drive of the 2nd half, forcing a Nebraska punt when it was up 17-14.
Martinez finished with 269 passing yards but completed less than 50-percent of his 29 attempts, and Purdue’s defense gained an extra 4 possessions for the offense. Yes, the Cornhuskers’ final drive was a stain on the performance, when Martinez threw for 104 yards to draw Nebraska to within 3, but it turned out not to matter.
By the 4th quarter, Purdue had forced Nebraska into basically giving up on its running game, which was a good thing considering the Cornhuskers had early success against the Boilermakers.
But Purdue was in control early in the 4th, when Anthrop’s TD put it up by 11 points. Nebraska tried to pass itself back into the game, with little success.
Still, the Boilermakers’ defense gave up 130 yards and a touchdown on the ground. But a 2nd-half adjustment was a big one. After the break, Purdue started to try to take away running backs Jaquez Yant and Rahmir Johnson, who had combined for 105 1st-half yards, and let Martinez carry the load.
It worked. The running backs gained only 8 more yards.
For the second consecutive game, Purdue’s defense scored.
It had 4 interceptions, all at the most critical moments. Graham’s TD gave the Boilermakers early life, then his second came on the second possession of the 2nd half, when Purdue still trailed by 3. And of course, Allen’s and Jefferson’s came in the 4th quarter, as Purdue tried to hang on to its lead.
Nebraska scored 23, and the late touchdown was ugly, and had 399 yards. But the Boilermakers got the Huskers off the field often, holding them to only 4-of-10 on 3rd downs and turning them over 4 times.
Payne Durham made the final play for the Boilermakers when he corralled Nebraska’s last-gasp onside kick, sealing the victory for Purdue.
Despite Durham’s heroics, it doesn’t erase that Purdue didn’t play the bouncing ball well, waiting for it to arrive — the Boilermakers appeared to think it would not travel 10 yards — rather than attacking and pouncing on it. But it did work out, even barely.
It was the bright spot in an otherwise ho-hum special teams day that saw Mitchell Fineran miss 2 chippy field goals and the Boilermakers botch a punt return, letting it bounce inside the 10 rather than field it.
It was a great job by Brohm and staff to have the Boilermakers ready to go again after the disappointing home loss to Wisconsin last week.
Purdue was prepared and executed many aspects of the game-plan: On offense, that meant trying to get others like Anthrop involved to take pressure off Bell, and moving Bell around to get him better looks. And on defense, it meant forcing Nebraska to be one-dimensional.
The end-of-the-1st-half sequence was a little wonky, as Purdue looked like it couldn’t decide exactly what it wanted to accomplish, deciding to go for it — and failing — on 4th down near midfield and giving Nebraska an extra opportunity. Purdue was lucky when Martinez’s deep pass, which would have been a touchdown, missed an open receiver.
Purdue has now won back-to-back road games as a 10.5-point and 7.5-point underdog, a nice accomplishment for the program as it seeks to get back to the postseason.
The Boilermakers were efficient on offense, aside from the missed field goals, and opportunistic on defense. It was a solid mix to pick up a win on the road.